I studied “The Waste Land” when doing my masters. A group of us grad students got the department to let us team teach (with an overseeing mentor) an upper level English course, so we decided that we would have modernism be our subject. I saw this as an opportunity to “learn” “The Waste Land.” The summer before the Fall term that we would be teaching, I got an independent study course with the modernist expert in the department, and he had me reading many Eliot biographies, and I, on my own to prepare to teach, went out and started to “decipher” this epic pulp poem.

I learned that Ezra Pound said “Eliot’s Waste Land is, I think, the justification of the ‘movement’ of our modern experiment since 1900.”

I learned the major themes of the poem: the barrenness of a postwar world in which human sexuality and the natural world has been perverted from its normal course and has become infertile. I read I. A. Richard’s praise of Eliot describing the shared postwar “sense of desolation, of uncertainty, of futility, of the groundlessness of aspirations, of the vanity of the endeavor, and a thirst for a life-giving water which seems suddenly to have failed.”

I learned how Pound’s motto of ‘Make it New’ and of radically changing poetry was not done in order to destroy poetry but to save it– and to give literature back the authority that it was losing in the face of an industrialized age of mass cultured that was reading sentimental tripe. This was the reason that Eliot goes back to classical literature, why he mixes ‘low art’ with ‘high art.’ It is because, as Eliot said, the world is divided between Dante and Shakespeare, that he wants to keep the classic, true literature alive. I learned how Eliot inherited from the French symbolist the use of esoteric private meanings and symbols (much in the same manner that WB Yeats does), but that for Eliot, these are “A heap of broken images,” and to help us, the hypocrite lecteur!–mon semblable, –mon frere, Eliot has provided us with notes on his private meaning and broken symbols.

Then I did my close reading of the poem. Line by line, I learned that April is a symbol of Christ’s resurrection, rebirth, and a reference to James Frazier’s Golden Bough. April is cruel because what rebirth brings is memories of the past that was better. This rebirth mixes memory with desire– is this a desire to return to the past or a desire for death in order for rebirth.

On and on, I learned that the Eliot struggles to make a new poem out of inherited language of tradition, and this is mirrored in the poem’s language, pastiche, and unevenness. After all this reading about the poem, and then all the reading of the poem, I was more or less where I had started, not gaining much “meaning” at all.

By the time I was done annotating and deciphering the first section and was about to move on the part II. A Game of Chess, I realized that I had enough notes for the entire hour of lecturing allotted to me, and I had a moment where I thought why? Why was I struggling to learn this in order to teach it to college seniors? Especially since I didn’t have much in terms of “answers” or insights into the meanings– I would just be adding more notes to the poem that lead nowhere, much like what Eliot already did.

I asked the class why they think we should read the poem, and after listening to what you would expect about being better humans, the human spirit, cultured, learned, etc… I gave my answer, which was simply:

“It makes my toes tingle.”

The music of the words itself, the play with the language, the mixing of images (some of which I could finally recognize without a footnote), and the joy of letting the words linger in my head: “Unreal City/ Under the brown fog of a winter dawn/ A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many/ I had not thought death had undone so many/ Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled/ And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.”

After the class was over and my teaching of the poem was a disaster (mostly because my professor had spent the entire summer teaching a class on only “The Waste Land”) I came across a collected works of Eliot with an introduction by Mary Karr, who strengthen my view of reading the poem simply because it makes my toes tingle: “Read it for joy, Shut up your head’s claptrap and open yourself to fall in love with it. Treat it like a first date, which should begin with ignorance but also with hope. Only if you fall in love do you make a study of the beloved…” (T.S. Eliot: The Waste Land and Other Writings xxv).

Now that I have fallen in love, I have begun to make a study of the beloved.

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